I wish I’d never heard her name. From the moment I read about her story two years ago, all I’ve wanted to do is forget it. I initially hated the blogger from whom I first heard about it, wishing he’d made the point he wanted to make without using such a mind-numbingly horrific story to do so. But as the months went by I kept hearing about her, each time confronted with new and increasingly sickening details about the event. I was bound to hear about her at some point, and as long as her story is out there I’ll never be able to forget it. It’s already so firmly entrenched within the neural fibers of my brain that it can never come out—images of the scene as I picture it all-too-frequently flash before my mind with only the slightest hint of an association, dragging me down to depths that can take minutes, hours or even days to recover from.
I last heard the story on a recent podcast of Dan Carlin’s Common Sense, and while that was two nights ago I still find myself looking at the world through darkened lenses because of it. The only thing I can do is to write about it and hope to find some clarity through that.
If anyone reading this doesn’t know the story of Aisha, you might want to consider not reading this and sparing yourself the psychological/emotional torture that I’ve been enduring since the story was sprung upon me without warning. I’m writing this mostly for myself, and for anyone else who might be struggling with the same feelings and for whom a written account of another person’s thoughts might be helpful.
Almost everyone is aware of the practice of “honor killings” in which Muslim women are murdered for adultery. Nearly every week there’s another story in the news about a woman killed by her own family for being with another man. Sometimes no actual adultery is committed—the woman need only be alone in a room with a man who isn’t her husband to earn a death sentence. Occasionally the punishment will be as sickening as mutilation or as horrifying as being buried alive, as some young teenage girls recently were because they dared to flirt with boys their own age.
And yet nothing is worse than what happened to poor Aisha. Her story remains the single most horrifying thing I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of thing that makes me look at humanity and almost wish that our species had never evolved to the point where we became capable of such things.
Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was a 13-year-old Somali girl who committed the ‘unforgivable crime’ of being gang-raped by three men and then reporting it to the local authorities in the Kiyasmu region, the al-Shabab militia. Under certain interpretations of Islam, letting oneself be raped is akin to adultery, and the punishment for adultery in Kiyasmu is death by stoning.
On October 27, 2008, Aisha was dragged before a crowd of over 1,000 spectators in a stadium at the southern port of Kiyasmu where she would be buried up to her neck in a hole in the ground while 50 men threw stones at her head until she died. While she was being dragged to her death, she reportedly shouted and pleaded with her executioners “No! I won’t go! Don’t kill me!” No mercy was shown to her.
During the execution, at least a few of the spectators showed some humanity and attempted to save her, but the militia opened fire and killed a boy who was a bystander. The rest of the crowd sat and watched.
At one point they pulled Aisha from the ground and nurses were instructed to determine whether or not she was still alive. They announced that she was, and she was put back in the hole for the stoning to continue. One can only hope that by this point her body was in such a state of shock that she could no longer feel anything. One can only hope.
Every time I hear this story I get the most sickening feeling in my gut, I feel like my insides are burning and that that my brain might tear itself apart in blind rage. I just want to find the al-Shabab militia members who sentenced Aisha to death and the men who stoned her and pummel each of them to death one by one. But that would accomplish nothing. Aisha is dead and no vengeance will bring her back. She had to undergo that experience and it will never be erased.
Part of the reason this disturbs me so much has to do with the way I look at reality. Time is a relative thing, so everything that happens exists permanently. Subjective experience is a part of the universe, so all experiences exist permanently as well. I also think that the nature of consciousness might be universal, in that the same Being—call it God, the Brahmam-Atman, or whatever it may be—is at the centre of the awareness of everyone and everything that is aware. What happens to one of us happens to all of us—we only perceive different events through different minds.
So whenever I hear about a tragedy, I imagine the experience from the point of view of the victims. I can usually find some kind of “at least” in the situation. As in, “at least he was strong enough to face death bravely,” or “at least she was old enough to accept her fate” but with children it’s a different story. The only “at least” I can find when something bad happens to children is “at least they were too young to understand what was happening.”
But Aisha was 13—old enough to understand death but far too young to make peace with it. She was also female—and in a patriarchal culture, no one would have bothered to help her cultivate the qualities of strength and bravery that would have been encouraged in male children.
No, Aisha was as vulnerable a victim as there can be. And to imagine the horror from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl of being buried up to your neck, desperately trying to claw your way out of the ground but unable to move an inch, lying there helpless as heavy stones fly at your face, each new crack in your skull producing an eternity of agony and bringing you one step closer to a death of which you are terrified, the pain and fear too overwhelming to comprehend.
This experience is a part of the universe and it always will be. And that almost makes me wish the universe never existed at all. Better to have eternal nothingness than a single moment such as that…
But what really makes this story so unbearable to me is the setting. This event happened in a stadium of a thousand people, and while at least a few were horrified enough to try and put a stop to it, the majority of spectators must have felt…what?
Were they enjoying it? Did most of them get some sick macabre sort of pleasure out of watching a poor defenseless girl cry out in horror as her life was ripped away from her? Did they actually feel that justice was being served—that this adulteress, despised by Allah, was getting what she deserved?
That’s the thought that keeps me up at night, because that is one of the great unsolvable questions of humanity at this stage in history. Many people would hear this story and blame it on Islam, but the problem goes much deeper than that. The practice of honor killings may have been integrated into some versions of Islam but it almost certainly pre-dates the religion, going all the way back to tribal existence. This is an element of the culture in that part of the world that goes unquestioned by what may be most of the people there, including the women. When asked whether they approve of the practice of honor killings, it might be the case that this cultural tradition is so firmly ingrained in their minds that a majority of them would insist on its moral correctness.
I once considered myself a moral relativist, but not anymore. Just because something is accepted in another culture does not make it right. There is a certain amount of happiness and suffering brought about by every action, and certain actions cause a degree of suffering so great that the scale could never be balanced. Aisha’s death was so horrible that no amount of satisfaction on the part of the executioners or spectators who felt that justice had been served could outweigh it. This is as black-and-white as it comes. No matter what culture or time period you’re talking about, this kind of thing is plain wrong.
And yet, what can any of us do about it? Some suggest that a Western military presence in the region serves this very purpose. If we can bring stable democracies to these areas in which women are given the power to help shape their societies, eventually these practices will end.
But I’m for leaving Iraq and Afghanistan, and whatever I may feel in my heart, I know in my mind that staying would cause more overall harm than good. As much as I would desperately like to change their culture, I consider it the height of arrogance to think ourselves capable of doing so. You can’t change thousands of years of tradition by rolling in with tanks and shooting everything that looks threatening. If centuries of colonialism taught us anything, it’s that more just societies can’t be imposed from above. They can only transform from within.
But how long before the women in these societies awaken enough to question their cultural traditions and feel strong enough to fight against them? How many more innocent girls are to be buried alive or stoned to death before such things are resting firmly in the trash-bin of history where they belong?
The only shred of positive thinking I can muster from Aisha’s story is that it may serve as some kind of wake-up call within the collective human consciousness. I never met this girl. I don’t even have any idea what she looked like. I never knew she existed until she no longer did. But if I can feel such powerful emotions over the manner in which she died, then others can too.
I said that I wished I’d never heard of her, and that may still be true. I didn’t want to have to face the reality that we live in such a world where an event like her death can happen, and that I’m a member of a species that is capable of doing such a thing. But perhaps more people need to be confronted with this reality. More people need to know about Aisha, to lose sleep over her, to picture her crying face sticking up from a hole in the ground whenever a random comment triggers the firing of those neurons.
Only by confronting the horror can we hope to one day be rid of it. It’s either that or wait until the planet rids itself of us. But for Aisha’s sake I have to hope it’s the former. If the human species wipes itself out, at least these kinds of horrors will stop but it will all have been for naught. If we can come together and forge a global society in which the murder of children is not tolerated by anyone, at least such deaths won’t have been in vain. And if there is any truth to the idea of immortal souls, I can only hope that Aisha’s will be able to see what we’ve done and to know that her suffering did not go unnoticed—that the cries she let out as death took her in that stadium did not fall on deaf ears.
One can only hope.